Divided Ukraine accelerates towards catastrophe predicted by all sides

Analysis: tension expected to rise ahead of rebel referendum and presidential election

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday.  Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner


Wildflowers already speckle the Carpathian mountains, pavement cafes line the streets of Kiev and Lviv, and empty Black Sea beaches bathe in warm sunshine. Winter was short and spring came early to Ukraine but it brought little joy to a nation deeply divided, and many expect May to be the longest of months.

Just 10 weeks ago this morning, protesters climbed from their tents on Independence Square to discover they were no longer hemmed in by ranks of riot police, and could walk unhindered up Instytutska Street to Kiev’s government district.

Wandering bewildered along the road where snipers had killed scores of their comrades two days earlier, demonstrators found the president’s headquarters unguarded and realised Viktor Yanukovich had fled in the night.

On that dizzying Saturday, crowds strolled in stunned elation around Yanukovich’s vast estate outside Kiev as the parliament he had controlled for years voted to impeach him and to free his arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.

The politicians who laughed and cheered to find themselves suddenly leading Ukraine now deliver grim-faced and weary reports on their daily struggle with separatism, and the threat of civil war and Russian invasion. And the danger grows with each day.

Protesters, usually led by masked gunmen, continue to seize official buildings across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, brushing aside police who are unwilling or unable to resist. The passivity of the police and apparent powerlessness of local and national officials to restore order in the east only emboldens the rebels, and swells their ranks with people who feel no more loyalty to Ukraine than to Russia.

In terms of language, culture and history, eastern Ukraine is closer to Russia than to Kiev or western cities such as Lviv, which are the strongholds of the new government.

Polls suggest a minority of easterners want to join Russia but in reality relatively few would protest if they woke one morning to discover that, like Crimea, their region was now run by the Kremlin, and many would welcome the prospect of better pay, pensions and more stability that they associate with Moscow rule.

Slow and passive
Kiev’s new leaders, determined to break Kremlin influence and align with the European Union, were themselves too slow and too passive in trying to convince Russian-speakers in the east and south that the new order would benefit them.

Moscow immediately threw Kiev into crisis, scrapping a financial aid deal and energy discount and sending troops into Crimea before annexing it.

But the new government did too little to woo the east, where support for the revolution was weak and many felt humiliated by seeing a local man, Donetsk-born Yanukovich, ousted in what Moscow said was a US-backed coup to bring Russian-hating fascists to power.

The east does not share western regions’ strong Ukrainian identity or desire for sovereignty, and 23 years of troubled independence have fuelled a Soviet nostalgia in older easterners and a sense of grievance in some younger ones, who blame Kiev for their woes and idolise tough Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.

Just as the Maidan movement gave one group of disaffected Ukrainians a sense of unity and purpose – to oust a corrupt and brutal leader and end Russian domination of the country – now the anti-government unrest is giving angry easterners a mission.

Months of virulent Russian propaganda have convinced them they are not merely protesting against the government or the ousting of a president but are locked in an existential struggle with a murderous band of Russian-hating fascists.

Despite the absence of any evidence that Ukrainian ultra-nationalists are attacking people because of their language – the revolutionary Right Sector group says 40 per cent of its members are native Russian speakers – many easterners believe they are facing the same fight with fascism as their ancestors 70 years ago. Most families in today’s eastern and southern Ukraine lost members in that war, and it is now common to hear people vowing to repel government forces and reject compromise with Kiev out of a sense of honour to those killed by the Nazis.

Millions of people in the east and south want the Russian language’s status to be raised, the decentralisation of power, and for their traditional ties with Russia to be respected.

But these issues are mainstays of independent Ukraine’s political world, and no one has been prepared to use violence to achieve them, just as no one would have taken up arms to reinstate a discredited Yanukovich or to stop Ukraine integrating with the EU, a move that had widespread support even in the east last year.

Threat of fascism
It is the supposed threat of rampaging fascism, propagated by the Kremlin and its local allies, that has made many easterners scared enough to fight, in regions that have never seen serious strife between Russians and Ukrainians. Every day now, people on all sides warn that Ukraine is approaching an “abyss” or a “catastrophe”. And every day it seems to accelerate towards such a fate.

Next Friday, rallies are expected in the east to mark Victory Day, the Soviet celebration of the defeat of fascism. Two days later, separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk intend to hold a referendum on independence from Kiev.

The illegal plebiscite has been called hastily to undermine a May 25th presidential election, which Kiev’s new authorities hope will enhance their legitimacy. Far-right candidates are expected to get less than 5 per cent of votes.

Russia has already questioned the legitimacy of the presidential ballot, and rebel leaders have vowed to ensure it does not take place in the regions where they are strongest – Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kiev accuses Russian agents of planning more unrest in the coming days, with Kharkiv – the biggest city in the east – the most likely target.

Kharkiv must get by without its powerful mayor, Gennady Kernes, who backed Yanukovich but now claims to support a united Ukraine.

He is recovering in hospital after being shot by an unknown gunman, as he rode his bike one recent morning in this dangerous Ukrainian spring.


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